Do Fences Make Good Neighbors?
In the middle of this week’s parsha, Ki Teze, sandwiched between the mitzvah of Kan Tzipor (sending away the mother bird) and the mitzvah of Shaatnez (wearing wool and linen together), we find a most unusual mitzvah.. G-d commands Bnei Yisrael when they build a house to make sure that a fence surrounds the roof lest someone goes up to the roof and chas veshalom falls off and dies – nobody wants blood spilled in their backyard. Is it not obvious that one’s house should contain safety features? Why does G-d have to list it as one of the mitzvoth? There is no mitzvah to lock up the cleaning supplies with a child lock, install airbags in my car or to build a gate to block off my staircase if I have young kids. (Fine maybe they did not have these items back then, but you get my drift.) Why is it so crucial to list this mitzvah?
The Rambam describes the details of this mitzvah in Hilchot Rotzeach 11:4, in which he extends the mitzvah to include preventing any scenario which is dangerous where a person might stumble, fall and, chas veshalom, die. For example, if one has a pit or a well in their backyard, he must build a fence around it or cover it up. Nowadays one could translate this Halacha as saying that anyone with a swimming pool in their backyard must cover it or put a fence around it. Why does the Rambam view this mitzvah as an overall umbrella for the approach that man should safeguard places that could result in potential physical harm?
The Rambam cites the beginning of Sefer Devarim as the reason for this mitzvah. Moshe in his final address to the people to obey the commandments states: “Heshamer Lecha UShamor Nafshecha” “Watch yourself and guard your soul.” Most Mefarshim interpret this verse as a spiritual guarding of the soul; one should protect his soul from danger by doing mitzvoth. In contrast, the Rambam is interprets the passuk to mean literally watch your souls by guarding your physical bodies. Therefore, based on this tenet, the Rambam advises people not to drink from pipes attached to the ground, or from rivers in the middle of the night lest there be a leech in the water. Additionally, one should not drink from a pitcher that was left open since there is a chance that a snake entered the pitcher and the drinker would not see it. All of these laws center on the need to physically protect the body from harm. Even though, the passuk, at first glance seems to be referring to spiritually protecting the body by following G-d’s law, the Rambam understands this verse as a physical protection of the body.
The Sefer Hachinuch, using this mitzvah, refocuses our attention on the spiritual world and uses this mitzvah as the model for connecting the spiritual and the physical world. He states that man knows that G-d is in charge of the world. He knows all of man’s decisions and actions and, yet, man has the ability to make his own choices. G-d created a world in which gravity exists and, thus, if a man jumps off of a roof he will fall to the ground. Taking it one step further, the Sefer Hachinuch writes that man has to be very careful not to fall off the roof because even though, a man might have earned much zechut, merit, if he falls off a roof, the rules of nature will apply and force him to fall to the ground. In other words, at the bottom line we live in a physical world.
In essence, then, the mitzvah to build a fence around one’s roof is a reminder that we live in a physical world governed by the laws of nature and that it is up to us to use this world as a way of getting closer to G-d. The Rambam in Hilchot deot 4:1 states:
By keeping the body in health and vigor one walks in the ways of G-d. Since it is impossible during sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator, it is therefore a person’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.
This message is particularly relevant at the start of the new year. Our physical well being is the first step necessary in creating a relationship with G-d. May we take heed to the mitzvah mentioned in this week’s parsha and use the world around us and the opportunities presented to us to bring us ever closer to Hashem.